Instead of looking for a clear and/or reassuring answer, what I am going to do in this blog is follow some interesting ideas that have been put forward about Putin’s war aims to their logical and uncomfortable conclusion. I am not saying that my hypothesis is probable, or may even be possible, but I believe that we should prepare for a worst case scenario.
Peter Zeihan has been talking about Putin closing the nine gates: the geographical spaces through which Russia has repeatedly been invaded over the centuries. This process potentially began with the 2008 Russo-Georgian war and has continued ever since. Vlad Vexler has said that Putin sees Ukraine as territory rather than as kin, which fits with the idea that what we are seeing is a Russian grab for land to deny access to invading forces. Russia experts keep on talking about Putin thinking in terms of his legacy, which could be a re-creation of the earlier Russian Empire.
For the sake of my extreme hypothesis concerning Putin’s war aims, let’s assume that he is trying to close the nine gates to re-establish something like the former Russian Empire. His interest is in territory, not people. From this perspective the Russian war in Ukraine can be slow and steady, because Putin wants the land, not the population. If Putin defaults to the Russian way of war (Chechnya and Syria), then multiple cities will be bombarded into rubble from a distance, after which Special Operations forces and mercenaries will capture and kill people from within the refugee stream as they flee. If Putin gives Ukrainian civilians enough time to flee, then he doesn’t have to manage them once Russia takes control of Ukraine, and Russian violence can become even more indiscriminate. Refugees will become Europe’s problem, which, from Putin’s perspective, will cost European resources that won’t then be available for defence.
If the Russians continue to slowly gain ground in Ukraine, then Putin’s next target will be Moldova. The capture of Moldova would close one more of the nine gates. As Moldova doesn’t have significant ties to the West, I expect that Russian military operations would be even more barbaric than in Ukraine. If the West finally decides to intervene in an effective/kinetic way in Moldova, this is where Putin will use a tactical nuclear weapon to show how far he is willing to go. The world wouldn’t be willing to go to full scale/nuclear war over Moldova, and Putin doesn’t see it as anything more than a kill-zone to deter invasion.
If the Russian forces in Ukraine are all that Putin is willing to field, then closing the nine gates might stop at Moldova, but if he has an equal number of forces ready for the next operation, one of the Baltic states will be the next target (to close another gate). If Putin is serious about using nuclear weapons, which he may well be, I really can’t imagine NATO being willing to go to war over one of the Baltic states if Putin has already used a tactical nuclear weapon in Moldova.
With a new Baltic kill-zone and Moldova to deter invasion from Europe, Putin will settle down behind his nuclear wall and kill-zones and begin to rebuild Russia to suit himself. Imagine a dystopian hermit kingdom done right.
The West assumes that Putin wants Russia to continue to be connected to the world, and I think this is a mistake. From Putin’s perverse perspective, exposure to the world has wrecked the Russia he loves and the Russia he rules, and the only way to have the Russia he wants is to de-link from the world. Russia has the food, energy, and resources to do its own thing, and Putin has the nuclear weapons and internal security system to keep the outside world out and the inside world in.
What Putin doesn’t have under these circumstances is access to consumer goods and the day to day stuff necessary to run a society. What Putin does have though, is President Xi of China, who has an equal fixation with legacy, as well as an equal disregard for human life. Xi is in the midst of a battle for absolute control of the CCP, and is experiencing blow-back for his last two years of international belligerence.
In a world in which Russian and Ukrainian grain are not going to be available, and in which Russian energy and fertilizer are going to be largely unavailable, the cost of fuel and food are going to sky-rocket. It is likely that we will begin to see the human, societal, and political costs of famine and fuel shortages before the end of 2022. Under these circumstances, China will desperately need affordable energy, fertilizer, food, and resources, and progressively less people across the world will be able to afford Chinese exports.
Now imagine that President Putin has offered President Xi an incredible deal: affordable energy, fertilizer, food, and resources for decades, in exchange for consumer goods and the day to day stuff Putin needs to run Russia. Could President Xi afford not to take this deal in a world in which fuel and energy costs are going to destroy billions of people’s ability to purchase Chinese goods?
Presidents Xi and Putin said that they are going to work together for a long time before the Winter Olympics, and it appears that Putin put off his invasion until after Xi’s Olympics were finished. Did President Xi know what was coming, and has he made a deal to sustain his legacy and China through the turbulent times ahead?
Is President Putin in the process of closing the nine gates, so that he can settle down to construct his preferred version of Russia behind a new and clearly defined Nuclear Curtain? Who will do business with him to survive and thrive in the turbulent new world he is unleashing?
This hypothesis may not be probable, but, frighteningly, it does appear possible.